The following is a selection by our editors of significant weekly developments in Syria. Depending on events, each issue will include anywhere from four to eight briefs. This series is produced in both Arabic and English in partnership between Salon Syria and Jadaliyya. Suggestions and blurbs may be sent to email@example.com.
Ghosts in Paris
6 January 2020
A special court will be held in Paris on Monday for the trial of twenty-four suspects including twenty-one French nationals who went for jihad in Iraq and Syria in 2014 and 2015, most of whom are presumed dead.
The suspects in this so-called “ghost-trial” had adopted an extremist Islamists ideology either in a clandestine mosque or with an extremist leadership. They were eager to join the Islamic State, especially after it declared the establishment of the “caliphate” in 2014.
The suspects (French nationals and a Moroccan, Algerian, and a Mauritanian) were between the ages of twenty and thirty when they left France shortly before or after the Paris attacks in January of 2015.
Only five will be present in the court on charges of engagement in a vicious gang for terrorist purposes. The rest are still officially under prosecution, however, most of them died in bombing or suicide attacks, according to testimonies by families and information gathered by investigators.
The current suspects did not deny their interest in the Islamic State, but they denied their involvement in a criminal gang.
The trial is scheduled to last until 17 January.
Half a Million Deaths
5 January 2020
Since its onset nine years ago, the Syrian war has left more than three hundred and eighty thousand people dead, including one hundred and fifteen thousand civilians, according to a new tally by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) on Saturday.
The SOHR documented the killing of three hundred and eighty thousand and six hundred and thirty-six people since the onset of the conflict, including more than one hundred and fifteen thousand civilians, adding that the civilian tally includes around twenty-two thousand children and more than thirteen thousand women.
The last SOHR tally on 15 March 2018 reported the killing of more than three hundred and seventy thousand people.
As for the non-civilian casualties, the SOHR documented the killing of more than one hundred and twenty-eight thousand members of government forces and allied militants from Syrian and non-Syrian nationalities, half of them were Syrian soldiers, in addition to one thousand six hundred and eighty-two members of Hezbollah, which has been publicly fighting alongside Damascus since 2013.
In contrast, more than sixty-nine thousand people were killed from opposition and Islamic factions and the Syrian Democratic Forces, which are spearheaded by Kurdish units – and were able to eliminate the Islamic State’s “caliphate” with US support.
More than sixty-seven thousand militants were killed from the Islamic State, Tahrir al-Sham (previously Nusra), and foreign militants in other radical factions.
These tallies include people whose death by bombardment during battles was documented by the SOHR, but it does not include those who died as a result of torture in government detentions, missing people, and kidnapped people by various parties. This group is estimated to be at around eighty-eight thousand people.
In addition to human loss, the conflict has left massive destruction in the infrastructure, estimated by the United Nations to be around four hundred billion dollars. It also caused the displacement of more than half the population inside and outside the country.
“I Will Not Forget” Soleimani
3 January 2020
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Friday said that the Syrian people “will not forget” the stance of the Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani, who was killed in a US strike in Baghdad, in supporting his country’s army in the nine-year conflict, while the opposition condemned the “pivotal” role he played in Syria.
The head of Quds Force in the Revolutionary Guard Corps Qasem Soleimani and the deputy chief of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Committee Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis were killed early Friday in a US missile attack that targeted their car near Baghdad international airport, raising fears of an open conflict between Washington and Tehran.
Tehran is considered the most prominent allies of Damascus. It has provided major political, economic, and military support for Damascus since the start of the conflict. It managed, with the help of allied groups, to tip the balance of powers on the ground in favor of Syrian government forces on several fronts.
Soleimani was Iran’s envoy to Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon and responsible for coordinating with armed groups allied to Iran in these countries.
After the onset of the conflict in 2011, Iran initiated a credit line that has reached five and a half billion dollars today, in addition to sending military consultants and fighters to support the Syrian army in its battles against opposition factions.
The two countries signed a military cooperation agreement in the summer of 2018 by which Iran provides support needed to rebuild the Syrian army and defense industries.
In contrast, Syrian opposition figures and groups abroad said that Soleimani’s death is an end of a “war criminal” due to his role in the conflict.
Idlib Closed Off
2 January 2020
The UN Security Council, which held a closed meeting called upon by Paris and London to discuss the situation in Idlib in northeast Syria, failed to reach an agreement on a resolution to extend the delivery of humanitarian aid which expires on 10 January.
Sources said that the United States supported a request by France and the United Kingdom for the meeting to convene starting at 15:00 GMT.
Some diplomats hope that countries in the Security Council will once again deliberate in the meeting on the issue of extending the work of the mechanism to deliver humanitarian assistance across the border to four million people in Syria.
This mechanism, which provides for the delivery of assistance through border posts not under the control of the Syrian government, is set to expire on 10 January.
The mechanism currently utilizes four border posts, including two with Turkey, one with Jordan, and one with Iraq.
On 20 December, Russia objected to the extension of the mechanism in its current format, seeking to reinforce its Syrian government ally’s control over the country. Russia says that the situation on the ground has changed after the government retook control of more territories. It gave a counter-proposal that provides for the cancellation of two of the current four posts and extends the mechanism for six months rather than one year.
A Quarter Million
2 January 2020
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that up to two hundred and fifty thousand people were fleeing toward Turkey from Syria’s northwest Idlib region after weeks of bombardment by Russian and Syrian government forces.
Turkey already hosts some 3.7 million Syrian refugees, the largest refugee population in the world, and Erdogan said it was taking steps with some difficulty to prevent another wave from crossing its border.
With winter worsening an escalating crisis, the United Nations has said some two hundred and eighty-four thousand people had fled their homes as of Monday. Up to three million people live in Idlib, the last rebel-held swathe of territory after Syria’s nearly nine-year civil war.
“Right now, two hundred thousand to two hundred and fifty thousand migrants are moving toward our borders,” Erdogan told a conference in Ankara. “We are trying to prevent them with some measures, but it is not easy. It is difficult, they are humans too.”
Towns and villages have been pounded by Russian jets and Syrian artillery since a renewed government assault last month, despite a deal agreed last September by the leaders of Turkey, Russia, and Iran to ease tensions.
Massacre of Students
1 January 2020
At least eight civilians, including four children, were killed on Wednesday in a missile attack by government forces that hit a school in Idlib governorate in northwest of Syria.
Since mid-December, government forces and their Russian ally have intensified airstrikes against the area that is mostly under the control of Tahrir al-Sham and where less influential militant factions are also deployed. Government forces have advanced on the ground despite a ceasefire reached in August and calls by the UN to de-escalate.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that surface-to-surface missile strikes targeted the town of Sarmeen in the eastern countryside of Idlib and hit a school and other areas in the town.
The Syrian government, which controls more than seventy per cent of Syrian territory, says that the Idlib battle will decide the situation in Syria.
The Lowest Toll
31 December 2019
The nine-year conflict in Syria has registered in 2019 the lowest toll of deaths, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).
The SOHR has documented the death of eleven thousand and two hundred and fifty militants and civilians in 2019, adding that the number of civilian deaths is three thousand and four hundred and seventy-three people, including one thousand and twenty-one children.
Syria witnessed fierce fighting in 2019 on three fronts.
In March, the US-supported Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) ousted the Islamic State from the last territory it held in far east Syria near the border with Iraq.
In the summer, as in recent weeks as well, Syrian government forces escalated their military campaign against Idlib, which is under control of jihadist.
Battles in the summer in the area which hosts three million people and militants left around one thousand civilian deaths.
Turkey and allied militant factions launched a cross-border military operation in eastern Syria to oust Kurdish fighters which Ankara considers to be “terrorists”.